Welcome and Woes Await Soviet Jews in Israel
To boost its numbers, Israel has long wooed Jews around the world. But the huge influx of Soviet Jews is straining its economic and political resources - and raising tough questions about national and religious identity.
JERUSALEM — ROMAN TIMENSHIK, author and professor of Russian literature, moved here from Latvia three months ago. His reason for joining the flood of emigrating Jews was simple."All my readers had come to Israel," he shrugs. "I was obliged to follow them." The professor was being only half-facetious. Since Mikhail Gorbachev started letting Jews out of the Soviet Union in 1987 and George Bush placed strict limits on their entry into the United States in 1989, Israel has been filling up with Soviet immigrants at an unprecedented rate. It is a pace faster than the country can keep up with, say immigrants and officials charged with caring for them. As problems mount, warns one mayor struggling to cope with his new citizens, "the blessing of this aliyah could become a plague." The current aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning "ingathering," is expected to top 1 million people by the middle of this decade, increasing Israel's population by almost 25 percent. It is, officials here like to point out, as if the entire population of France were to move to the US over just five years. Those immigrants will change the face of Israel irrevocably, and the 272,000 of them who have arrived over the past 18 months are already straining the fabric of Israeli society. Absorbing the newcomers poses practical challenges on a scale the country has not faced since its creation drew hundreds of thousands of Jews from Europe and North Africa in the early 1950s. And to complicate matters further, the new crop of Soviet immigrants is a uniquely skilled group, especially hard to employ: Over 75 percent of them come from professional or technical jobs. The tidal wave of immigration also has raised political questions - about the impact the new voters will have on the parliamentary scene and also about what kind of country Israel wants to be or will become. Clouding these issues is a central doubt: Can Israel rise to the challenge of feeding, housing, and employing 1 million new citizens while it is at war with its neighbors? "Who believes it is possible to govern 1.5 million Arabs [in the Israeli-occupied territories] and absorb 1 million Jews at the same time?" asks Uri Gordon, head of the Aliyah Department of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which brings immigrants to Israel. "We have to set our priorities." Symbolic of this dilemma is the looming debate in the US Congress over Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help it finance immigrant absorption, while it continues to establish settlements in the occupied lands that Washington considers "an obstacle to peace." Premier Yitzhak Shamir insists the two issues are unrelated. But his ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, warned recently that "the Israeli government will have no choice but to decide whether it is more important to continue settlements ... or to get American aid for immigrant absorption. There is no escape." Meanwhile, each planeload of arriving Soviet Jews angers neighboring Arab countries for the very reason that it warms Israeli hearts: More Jews, they feel, help build a stronger Israel. "With 1 million more people we are stronger politically vis-a-vis the Arabs," says Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrant rights group. "Demographically," she says, "we will also have a better balance ... with Israeli Arabs," whose high birthrate could give them a numerical advantage over Jews in parts of Israel by the end of the decade without a Jewish influx. The aliyah is also infuriating Palestinians, who compare their daily suffering under occupation in their own land with the care and attention lavished on Jewish newcomers. "When we have Palestinians born in the West Bank and Gaza trapped in Kuwait, or being kicked out of there with nowhere to go, to see hundreds of thousands of people being welcomed to a country they have never seen shows up the world's hypocrisy," argues Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian professor. Palestinians also fear that whether or not Soviet Jews settle in the occupied territories in large numbers (see right), the wave of immigration will prompt more settlement activity. "Shamir is honest," Mr. Erakat says. "He says that this great immigration requires a 'Greater Israel' from the Jordan River to the sea. He is using immigration to add more settlements and destroy any hope for peace." Some Israelis, however, hope the aliyah might serve an opposite purpose. "If my society has 1 million more people, it will be less afraid to come to peace with the Arabs," Mr. Gordon says. "Aside from that," he adds,"we will be able to absorb 1 million people only if we have peace," and the government will one day have to realize that. Challenging as that dilemma is, for Israel it represents no more than a novel twist to the familiar phenomenon of mass immigration. And the troubles the Soviets bring in their wake recall earlier crises triggered by previous waves of Jews seeking a new life. The last massive wave of immigrants - Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian Jews escaping Arab Muslim homelands - arrived from North Africa in the first years of Israel's existence. These Sephardic Jews, however, found a country run by European Jews with little understanding of their culture. The Sephardim complained that they were treated as mere fodder for the construction of an idealized state. The resentment these Sephardic immigrants felt about the squalid tent-cities they started out in, about forced settlement in inhospitable border areas, and about the dismissive attitude of their hosts rankles to this day. One Moroccan Jewish leader even went so far last year as to call on President Gorbachev not to allow more Soviet Jews to emigrate until the government had ensured decent housing for Israelis of North African descent who had been here for decades. To the generally religious Sephardic Jews who came here to build a state, the overwhelmingly nonreligious Soviet Jews who came here because they could go nowhere else are curiosities who occasionally provoke suspicion. "So long as we feel that an immigrant is going to stay here whether he succeeds or not, we will do everything to help him until he does succeed," says Prosper Azrat, mayor of Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border, whose parents came from Morocco. "But if we feel that he will go somewhere else if he does not succeed here quickly, that's what we don't like," Mr. Azrat explains. There is little doubt, say immigration officials, that the overwhelming majority of Soviet Jews would not have chosen to come to Israel if they had been able to go somewhere else, such as the US or Western Europe. "Leaving the USSR means coming here because there is nowhere else to go," says Roza Finkelberg, another official with the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum. "They are not drawn to Israel, they feel expelled from the USSR by the political instability and economic deterioration there." Despite the dearth of Zionist motivation or identification with Israel, "the way society has gone out of its way for this aliyah is unprecedented," says Aaron Fein, a pollster who specializes in taking the Russians' pulse. Not only does the government offer social assistance the state could not afford 40 years ago, but mass-circulation newspapers publish weekly digests in Russian, the Yellow Pages are published in Russian, and state radio broadcasts simultaneous Russian translations of the nightly TV news. "Everyone is aware that the Russians are going to be a very significant factor in Israeli society and in the economy," Mr. Fein says. "Everyone is aware of their potential." That potential, however, will only be realized in the long run, when they are well integrated into society. Meanwhile, everybody agrees it is little short of lunacy in political, economic, and social terms to allow so many people into the country in such a short time. "If we want to be a normal country we should play by normal rules and set quotas," argues Eduard Kuznetsov, a Soviet immigrant of 20 years' standing who now edits a Russian-language paper, and who foresees grave social friction arising from the new immigration. Such a proposal is heretical, however, to the Israeli establishment. "It runs directly counter to Israeli myth and ideology" which is built on an ingathering of all the Jews, says Mikhail Kleiner, head of the Knesset's Aliyah and Absorption committee. "Nobody will even think of limiting the number of immigrants to our country," Premier Shamir declared in a recent speech. "Aliyah is one of the foundations of our existence and faith. The very raison dtre of our society and state determines that every Jew, wherever he may be, may come here." With the government warning that higher taxes, poorer services, and other hardships will be the price Israelis must pay to absorb a million Soviet Jews, "people are making real sacrifices," points out Ze'ev Chafets, a novelist and political commentator. "Some do it grumbling and some do it smiling,' he adds. "But the fact is, we are all doing it."